AUGUSTA – The fallout from a bill that would require residences for people in recovery from substance use disorder to install sprinkler systems would be devastating for Maine’s recovery community, operators and advocates told lawmakers at a public hearing Monday.

Nearly four dozen people testified in opposition to LD 109, “An Act to Improve Safety for Individuals Living in Recovery Residences,” at a public hearing of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety.

Rep. H. Scott Landry, D-Farmington, introduced the bill, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Michel Lajoie, a Lewiston Democrat and former fire chief.

If passed, it would repeal an exemption in Maine’s fire code regulations that classify recovery residences — shared living residences for people in recovery from substance use disorder — as single-family dwellings. The exemption has been in effect since 2019, when Gov. Janet Mills signed into law a bill from former Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta.

Building owner Wendi McPike, right, chats with her employees Katie Chandler, far left, and Annie Welner outside 87 Bartlett St. in Lewiston on July 26, 2022. The building is being transitioned from a known address for drug use to housing for individuals with substance use disorder transitioning out of prison and into the community. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal file

The exemption only applies to residences certified as meeting national standards and with no more than two residents per bedroom and six residents per full bathroom. Residences must still be equipped with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers.

Without the exemption, recovery residences would likely be classified as rooming and lodging or as small residential facilities, both of which are subject to more stringent fire code regulations that mandate sprinkler systems and fire alarms.


Landry said Monday that the bill came about when his local fire chief approached him about a property with two proposed uses — one as a bed and breakfast and the other as a recovery residence.

“Same building, two different uses, two different sets of rules. … I’ve seen what happens when there are not proper safety rules,” he said.

Landry said he lost a niece in the fire at a Portland duplex in 2014 that killed six people. The landlord, Gregory Nisbet, was found guilty of a fire code violation and sentenced to 90 days in jail.

“I firmly believe that this is necessary. The intent of the bill is not to shut down anyone,” Landry said.

Even if that’s not the intent, repealing the exemption would force many of Maine’s 67 recovery residences to shut their doors due to insurmountable financial and logistical burdens of having to install sprinkler systems, many of the people who spoke in opposition to the bill said.

“I appreciate the intent of the bill but think it’s a solution in search of a problem,” Doug Dunbar, a recovery and reentry work specialist at Eastern Maine Development Corporation in Bangor.


“We need more substance use disorder recovery supports, particularly sober housing options,” he said. “Any unnecessary barriers, like those made likely by LD 109, would slow or end the ongoing expansion of recovery residences.”

Preliminary data from the University of Maine shows that 2022 is a record-breaking year for overdose deaths in Maine: 649 people died from overdoses during the first 11 months of the year. There were 631 fatal overdoses in 2021.

Heidi Wheaton, the founder and executive director of Breaking the Cycle, an 18-bed recovery residence in Millinocket, said that the lowest quote she received on the cost to install sprinklers was $50,000.

“We do not have the money and the means as a nonprofit to cover these costs whatsover, and we would not be able to do it without raising money extensively to make it happen, nor would any other recovery residence,” she said.

Similarly, Steve Danzig, a licensed clinical social worker and executive director of ENSO Recovery in Augusta, said he got an estimate a few years ago for sprinklers that put the cost of installation alone at $75,000.

Johnny Clark, the founder and executive director of A Hand Up in Lewiston, said it would cost the organization $100,000 to install a sprinkler system.


“I would be forced to shut my doors, and I can only think of my residents, who I think of as family, what would happen to them, especially during a housing crisis. … Lots of them would die,” he said.

“I can tell you many are dying from this disease daily,” he said. “Please don’t take away our most important and first line of defense by passing LD 109.”

Many who testified in opposition spoke about how important it was to have access to recovery-friendly housing in the early days of their recovery, especially if they were transitioning out of incarceration.

Todd Wilson said he spent 42 days at St. Francis Recovery Center in Auburn last year and while there he met Clark of A Hand Up.

“He told me it was a family there and he would love for me to be a part of it,” he said. Since moving in, he’s become a certified recovery coach and a manager at the Lewiston recovery residence.

“I’m asking you guys to please keep my family together. Without my family, I would not be well,” Wilson said.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: